How '60 Minutes' Became a Pentagon Mouthpiece for Drone War

The military gave the popular program exclusive access to showcase autonomous drones.

Photo Credit: Screen Shot / CBS

The Department of Defense gave “60 Minutes” exclusive access to document a test of autonomous drones, and then used the Pentagon-friendly segment to promote the new technology, raising questions about unethical collaboration between the U.S. military and the supposedly independent CBS program. 

On January 9, the Department of Defense released a press statement boasting, “In one of the most significant tests of autonomous systems under development by the Department of Defense, the Strategic Capabilities Office, partnering with Naval Air Systems Command, successfully demonstrated one of the world’s largest micro-drone swarms at China Lake, California.”

The statement appears to be aimed at showcasing the high levels of technological sophistication achieved by the autonomous drone systems, quoting Strategic Capabilities Office director William Roper as saying: “Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature.”

To buttress its statements about the demonstration, the DoD statement points readers to the January 8 episode of “60 Minutes,” titled “The Coming Swarm.”

“The test, conducted in October 2016 and documented on Sunday’s CBS News program ‘60 Minutes,’ consisted of 103 Perdix drones launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornets,” states the DoD. “The micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.”

The DoD statement goes on to state: “The ‘60 Minutes’ segment also featured other new technology from across the Department of Defense such as the Navy’s unmanned ocean-going vessel, the Sea Hunter, and the Marine Corps’ Unmanned Tactical Control and Collaboration program.”

The military’s statement appears to be timed with the release of the show, coming just one day after it aired. The “60 Minutes” episode echoes the military’s giddiness about the technological achievements displayed by the drone technology, even implying such weapons will save human lives.

“It’s early in the revolution and no one knows exactly where it is headed, but the potential exists for all missions considered too dangerous or complex for humans to be turned over to autonomous machines that can make decisions faster and go in harm’s way without any fear,” states presenter David Martin.

The segment features numerous interviews with Pentagon officials, while sidestepping political and ethical questions about the drone war’s many victims. While the Obama administration has repeatedly refused to allow for the most basic public debate transparency about who is being killed by drones, independent reports show that the civilian death toll is staggering. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, up to 966 civilians in Pakistan have been killed since 2004 by U.S. drones. In Yemen, up to 101 civilians have been killed in confirmed drone strikes since 2002. In Somalia, up to 10 civilians have been killed since 2007, according to the Bureau.

In one eyebrow-raising exchange, Martin asks Roper, featured in the DoD’s press release, the following question: “I’ve heard people say that autonomy is the biggest thing in military technology since nuclear weapons. Really?”

Roper replies, “I think I might agree with that, David. I mean, if what we mean... is something that’s going to change everything, I think autonomy is going to change everything.”

Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, the magazine of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, told AlterNet, “They are talking in this gee-whiz way, without acknowledging what kind of terror nuclear weapons have subjected the world to, and what kind of consequences this technology might bring to human beings. This is not to mention the fact that military technology is very rapidly being brought home to the domestic market.”

CBS devoted an entire “Overtime” segment to documenting the challenges of capturing such fast-moving drones with camera technology. “The '60 Minutes' team was at the point of abandoning the story when an idea struck: Could a golf cameraman, someone capable of tracking a small white ball flying across sky, capture the Perdix in flight?” CBS states.

“This sure sounds more like a public relations partnership than an act of journalism,” said Naureckas. “You have the military staging an event to show off new technology. They explicitly explain that they wanted the world to see the new weapons technology they have. And ‘60 Minutes’ was thrilled to do it. Their chief concern was whether they would be able to modify their golf cameras enough to capture the fast-moving drones clearly. We’re talking about autonomous drones, which ought to be something that journalists apply the greatest possible scrutiny to.”

This is not the first time “60 Minutes” has been accused of questionable coverage. In 2015, the program aired a segment that smeared the whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. As journalist Kevin Gosztola pointed out, “the CBS show used ‘fugitive’ to describe Snowden, ‘convicted spy’ to describe Manning (even though she is not), and 'mass murderer' to describe the Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis. Anchor Scott Pelley amplified the terror by adding they all had one thing in common: U.S. government security clearances which they turned into weapons.’”

“60 Minutes” did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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